While the idea of more and more streaming services sounds expensive, football fans stand the most to gain from the increasing fragmentation of sports content and changing broadcast market.
Earlier this week, the APL (Australian Professional Leagues) and ViacomCBS announced the long awaited new TV rights deal bringing a much needed refresh after 17 years with pay-tv operator Fox Sports.
The five year deal, reported to be worth $200 million including cash and commercial contra, is the first domestic OTT (streaming service) orientated rights deal to be struck by one of the major sporting codes, and the league’s first rights deal with a major commercial TV station (Network Ten).
The devil is in the detail. ViacomCBS, the parent company of Network Ten, is better known to most as the owners of Paramount, and of course the Paramount+ streaming service.
In Australia, this is effectively a rebrand of the ‘Ten All-Access’ and ‘10Play’ platforms. But ViacomCBS have gone all in with the A-League and W-League, using our top flight as a means to launch their platform, which has 36 million users globally across all their various streaming iterations.
The Story of TV Viewership
Many have questioned the commercial thinking behind the deal. Australian Football often has a very glass-half-empty attitude to itself, many saying that the game is in fact dying.
You could very well make that argument, poorly, if you rely solely on the released TV viewership statistics, but again, lies, damned lies, and statistics.
The OzTam figures regularly used to underpin the ‘nails’ in the coffin tell half a story. A-League TV viewership is down on the Fox Sports’ conventional Pay TV cable channels.
That is a fact in the statistics. But OzTam figures do not aggregate any streaming numbers at all.
VOZ, which is the new reporting service from OzTam set to analyse streaming figures, has not yet launched, and was delayed at the onset of COVID-19.
Australian Football fans were early adopters of streaming services.
The launch of Optus Sport rocked the apple cart, and introduced the world of streaming to fans of the World Game.
The introduction of the telco into the world of sports broadcasting, forced News Corporation’s hand, and rushed forward their Kayo platform.
Australian football fans are more vastly spread, and according to Roy Morgan analysis in 2015, peak at the age groups of ‘25-34’ and ‘35-49’.
Cricket, conversely, peaks quite highly at ‘65 and over’. In the same study, Football was more watched more than cricket in the ‘under 25’ age bracket.
Roy Morgan data in 2020 found that viewership of the NRL was dropping significantly in the ‘Under 25’ and ’25-34’ age brackets, down 9% and 10% respectively from 2016.
To compare with the earlier cricket comparison, NRL TV viewership peaks at the ’50-64’ age bracket, followed closely by ‘65 and over’.
When looking at SVOD/OTT take up in Australia, it would be no surprise that the surge in growth is driven by those aged ’29-34’.
According to Deloitte, 62% of Australians aged ’29-34’ in 2018 had at least one streaming service.
Now these numbers aren’t definitive, and a number of assumptions have to be made with no football specific data and statistics from Kayo, but with football fans being early streaming adopters it would be reasonable to suggest that many A-League and W-League fans are watching differently to ten years ago.
The New Frontier
While the Premier League was the first major competition in Australia to go full streaming, other football competitions followed quickly.
The UEFA Champions League, UEFA Europa League, K League and J League all similarly found streaming homes. The Chinese Super League found a home quickly on now defunct Ovo, and Sports Flick in 2021.
This trend isn’t isolated to Australia. Overseas, Football found a home very quickly with overseas broadcasters, such as DaZN, Amazon Prime, and CBS All Access, which quickly became Paramount+.
Football inherently suits sports streaming services more than many other sporting codes. With such a large number of major competitions in play at any one-time, multiple games being broadcast and global reach, linear TV even with multiple channels, can barely support more than one competition at each TV time slot.
Streaming changes the ball game, with football being able to amass on specific services without being constrained by linear TV scheduling conflicts.
ViacomCBS were the first major US TV network to launch its own streaming service, in 2015. In the United States, CBS All Access/Paramount+ have acquired the rights to the UEFA Champions League, Europa League, National Women’s Soccer League (simulcast with the CBS Sports Network), CONCACAF Nations League, Argentine Premira Division and Brasileiro Serie A. NFL games are also broadcast on the platform.
It is also reported that Paramount+ will shortly announce the acquisition of the AFC Asian Football rights package, the very same package that has yet to find a home in Australia.
The key in this catalogue of sports programming, is the core focus on Football content.
Industry insiders have stated that this is not merely coincidence. ViacomCBS’ global sports programming strategy centres on football.
When we look at the service’s marquee rights acquisition, the A-League and W-League, this certainly follows.
Short Term Pain
It is no secret that the fragmentation of content in the broadcast market will be short term pain to the wallets of Australian consumers.
Netflix, Stan, Optus Sport, Paramount+, Sports Flick, Amazon Prime, Kayo, Dazn, just to name a few operators who have already launched in Australia.
While Football fans won’t buy all, they will have to consider buying many to get their sporting fix. 20 years ago, a Football fan could simply buy a Fox subscription to satisfy their needs.
While we may bemoan this fragmentation, make no mistake about it. The sports broadcasting monopoly that was the former world of sports is a very dangerous, and toxic environment.
We have all seen the outcomes. Unless you are the top tier sport, you are at the mercy of the only Pay-TV operator in the country.
Super Rugby and the A-League are very much the examples of where falling out of favour with the only operator can be disastrous, and without streaming, could have been the death knell of both competitions.
Free-to-air TV is also not viable platform for which a sports competition can rely. While comparisons are drawn to the NRL and AFL having extensive FTA television deals, these only exist due to anti-siphoning legislation from the Federal Government, legally requiring these games to be broadcast on FTA.
These same provisions protect Socceroos and Matildas home games from being behind a paywall.
TV advertisement revenue, which supports commercial free-to-air TV has dropped substantially.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the total free-to-air advertising market has dropped from $4.213 billion in 2015 to $3.654 billion in 2019, before suffering a further drop due to COVID-19, to $3.144 billion.
This is all the while the same PWC data actually displayed an increase in FTA audience consumption, driven largely by News Content.
FTA networks are also threatened by the rise of digital content providers such as social media, due to patterns of changing consumer behaviour in various age demographics.
These shifts in consumer activity and broadcast revenue are what has driven corporate decisions such as Stan for the Nine Network, 7Plus for Seven West Media, and Paramount+ for Network 10/ViacomCBS.
Long Term Gain
Football fans, and by extension the A-League and W-League stands to gain the most from the increasing fragmentation of sports rights.
The first main benefit, as is shown by the TV rights deal announced this week with Paramount+ and Network Ten, is increased competition means better rights deals, with the recent announcement being just the tip of the iceberg.
In five years, the sports broadcasting landscape will be even more diverse, with more streaming services likely to consider and look at the competition as a valuable prospect.
With the exception of the English Premier League, MLS (due to the pan-global rights agreements struck with ESPN), Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, and continental/international competitions, football competitions globally have rarely found a consistent broadcast agreement in Australia.
With the growth of sports streaming, more competitions will be able to find regular homes for their programming which allows Australians to see more football across multiple regions long term, on services with lower overheads than their conventional counterparts, and no programming/scheduling conflicts.
There are countless competition rights over the last 10 years that are actually held by Australian broadcasters which are not broadcast because they conflict with panel shows, other sporting competitions, and never see the light of deal despite their nominal TV rights fees being paid.
The value and greater exposure of the game across multiple competitions, the A-League and W-League rights deal, will mean more eyes on, and more growth in the sector as more competitions become available.
The long-term benefits can lead to greater engagement and connection with the grassroots base of football and the A-League/W-League, dependent on the strategy and direction taken by the APL.
A Home for Football
Once the dust settles over the ‘streaming wars’, football content will appear fragmented dramatically.
But slowly over time the marquee content will slowly pull other ancillary content toward them.
The A-League and W-League will pave the way for ViacomCBS to be the first phone call for many international rights holders to sell their various rights and wares.
Ultimately, casting aside for a moment the higher likelihood of ancillary content acquisition, changing consumer activity and programming benefits of the streaming market, the ultimate benefit boils down to one core economic idea.
The more candidates vying for Australia’s top domestic football content, whether it be the FFA Cup, A-League/W-League, or Socceroos/Matildas TV rights, means more money for the league, clubs, FA, and allows the game to grow.
Five years ago, our game was at the mercy of Fox.
It could only feasibly exist on one platform.
Today, with streaming, the game has many platforms with which it can thrive.
Tomorrow, the opportunities with the global market of streaming are endless.
Image Source: Australian Professional Leagues
DISCLAIMER: The author is a contractor who has worked in a number of capacities with a number of sports streaming services, rights holders, and rights distributors in Australia, the United States and Europe. No proprietary information has been shared in the writing of this editorial. The author was not involved in the A-League/W-League TV Rights acquisition or sale.